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The Annenberg Space for Photography: A Look Back

A screenshot of photographs shown at the Annenberg Space for Photography | Courtesy of the Annenberg Space for Photography
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A screenshot of the Annenberg Space for Photography logo | Courtesy of the Annenberg Space for Photography
A screenshot of the Annenberg Space for Photography logo | Courtesy of the Annenberg Space for Photography

In the fall of 2008, the Annenberg Foundation announced it was opening a new cultural center devoted exclusively to both digital and print photography. Located at 2000 Avenue of the Stars on the site of the former Shubert Theater in Century City, the Annenberg Space for Photography was heralded as the first institution of its kind in Los Angeles. Now, the foundation's president, Wallis Annenberg, has delivered a much less enthusiastic public announcement, one she said was "borne out of the pandemic that has upended public institutions across the world." More than a decade after it opened its doors in the spring of 2009, the Annenberg Space for Photography is shutting down permanently in the wake of COVID-19.

Established in 1989, the Annenberg Foundation was established by Wallis Annenberg's father, Walter Annenberg (1908-2002). His Triangle Publications owned several high-profile newspapers and magazines such as The Philadelphia Inquirer, TV Guide, Essence, Playboy, The Saturday Evening Post, The Atlantic Monthly and Seventeen magazine, among many others. In his later years, Mr. Annenberg focused on philanthropy, establishing the eponymous Annenberg Foundation that continues to this day.

Throughout its tenure, the 10,000 square-foot Annenberg Space for Photography has showcased the work of both established and up-and-coming photographers, as well as photographs from collections around the world. But its mission was strategic at heart. After it moved its administrative offices from Westwood to Century City in 2007, the Annenberg Foundation teamed up with then-L.A. council member Jack Weiss, along with real estate developers Trammell Crow, to build an adjacent space in Century City that would highlight the foundation's philanthropic efforts while celebrating the art of photography at the same time.

An all-photography venue was the brainchild of the Annenberg Foundation's Board of Trustees, inspired by Wallis Annenberg's love for the medium. Offering free admission, the square-shaped Annenberg Space for Photography featured a cleverly conceived interior from DMJM Design, complete with a circular digital projection gallery and an impressive aperture-like ceiling meant to recall the mechanics of a camera. In addition to an area reserved for the exhibition of print photographs, a state-of-the-art digital system provided a new way to view photography, which up until then had mostly been experienced in books and traditional galleries.

Throughout the years, the Annenberg Space for Photography's exhibition programming was like a pendulum, swinging between lighthearted and sobering topics. Viewers would either get a sexy, fun show that held a mirror to today's cultural zeitgeist, or an exhibition that served as a significant wake-up call. Sometimes, it was both.

The institution’s inaugural exhibit, “L8S ANG3LES,” featured the work of world-class photographers such as John Baldessari, Catherine Opie, Douglas Kirkland and Julius Shulman. After its successful debut, the Annenberg Space for Photography continued to host several pop culture-themed exhibits such as “Beauty Culture” in 2011, which examined the meaning of female beauty, and “Who Shot Rock & Roll” in 2012, which gave viewers a rare glimpse backstage into the worlds of rock legends. Its last exhibit, which opened on February 8, 2020, was “Vanity Fair: Hollywood Calling – The Stars, the Parties, and the Powerbrokers.” The show was expected to run until July 26 but was cut short when stay-at-home orders went into effect a little over a month into the exhibit.

Meanwhile, between comparatively uplifting shows, the Annenberg Space for Photography continued to remind visitors that it was the outgrowth of its eponymous organization, giving visibility to different causes through exhibitions such as “Water: Our Thirsty World” in 2010, “War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath” in 2013, and “Refugee” in 2016, which focused on images of the world's refugee populations.

The Annenberg Space for Photography not only staged several well-executed photo exhibits but hosted a popular series of regular talks called the Iris Nights Lectures series. It also welcomed visitors to several free concerts, film screenings, and other community-minded happenings. But with the advent of COVID-19 and accompanying social-distancing mandate, the Annenberg Space for Photography has been forced to close. It’s not yet clear what the Annenberg Foundation will do next.

"For now, given the unprecedented health crisis we face, the Annenberg Foundation will continue to place its primary focus on helping to support those affected by COVID-19," Wallis Annenberg said in her announcement. "In addition, we’re going to continue to expand our commitment to social and economic justice, in every way we can."

Top Image: A screenshot of photographs shown at the Annenberg Space for Photography | Courtesy of the Annenberg Space for Photography 

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